I’ve heard people chuckle in amazement at factions in other countries who still feud over “ancient” injuries, but we have our own on-going civil war. It appears that for many, the Confederacy was never defeated and the South can rise again. Two smart women, Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Gail Collins have written about this phenomenon each using the Virginia Confederate History Month as a starting point.
Harris-Lacewell writes of the “Two Virginias” in the Nation
Governor Robert McDonnell declared April Confederate History Month in Virginia. In his declaration Governor McDonnell called for Virginians to “understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War.”
In his original declaration, McDonnell made no mention of slavery as a root cause for the Civil War. His insistence on remembering only “leaders, soldiers, and citizens” refuses to acknowledge the existence of black people in the South. There were some black soldiers who fought in the Confederate army, but the vast majority of African Americans contributed to the Confederate effort through the violently coerced, unpaid labor that was part and parcel of the their dehumanizing, totalizing, intergenerational, chattel bondage. McDonnell seems to believe that this reality is unworthy of remembrance.
It’s taken me nearly two days to respond to the Governor’s declaration of Confederate History Month and his flip erasure of black life, suffering, and struggle because this particular news story is profoundly personal.
On my father’s side we traced our family tree as far as we could follow it and discovered we are descended from an African woman sold into slavery on a corner in Richmond, Virginia.
My father and his siblings grew up in the Church Hill neighborhood in Richmond. They attended racially segregated schools. Despite being nearly starved for school resources by the state, my father and his twin brother became the first in the family to attend college. Both became college professors. My uncle had a distinguished career as a student at the University of Virginia. My father went on to become the first Dean of African American Affairs at the University of Virginia in 1976.I grew up in Virginia. I had social studies teachers who referred to the Civil War as “the war between the states” or “the war of Northern aggression.” My interracial family experienced harassment and abuse during the two decades we made our home in the Commonwealth. But Virginia is also the place where I made lifelong friends, found spiritual communities and was educated by many tough and loving teachers. I came to political consciousness in Virginia and distinctly remember listening to every word of Douglass Wilder’s inauguration address as the first black governor. I cheered on election night 2008 when Virginia turned blue just moments before Barack Obama’s presidential win was announced.
I share this personal history because it is not exceptional. Black Americans are, by and large, Southerners. Our roots, our stories, our lives, our struggles, our joys have a distinctly Southern flavor. Slavery and Jim Crow are part of our experience, but so are church picnics, HBCU football games and jazz music. There is no Black American history that is not deeply intertwined with Southern history. It is extraordinarily painful to watch an elected official in the 21st century engage in an act of willful and racist historical erasure of our very selves.
I also lived in Virginia for many years. My first job with the Commonwealth of Virginia was enforcing Executive Order Number One issued by a former segregationist governor, Mills E. Godwin. E.O. 1 which was issued by every governor until Bob McDonnell forbids discrimination in state employment. I had the day off for Lee-Jackson Day every January. (That’s Robert E. and Stonewall.) When Martin Luther King’s birthday was made a national holiday, the day became Lee-Jackson-King Day. Virginia has always been different, but McDonnell seems determined to really turn back time.
Without a hint of irony McDonnell suggested that he hopes to profit from Confederate inspired tourism. Clearly he hopes that the racial anxieties brewing in America will serve as a tourist boon for the former Confederate capital. Having profited for centuries from the forced labor of enslaved black Americans, Virginia seeks to further commodify black suffering in the 21st century. McDonnell is welcoming Rebel flag waving whites from rural Pennsylvania, downstate Illinois, and Southern California to come spend their money and steep themselves in Virginia past when white citizens, determined to keep black people as non-humans, fought back against the federal government.
Virginia has other histories that we can use to resist this false and frightening narrative. We must insist on remembering Jefferson’s Virginia that called us to be better than ourselves, to defend freedom, and to hold together our union. We must remember the histories of all the black families like my own whose struggle and strength cannot be erased from Southern history.
I have visited all the Civil War battle sites in Virginia. I spent my honeymoon visiting the Shenandoah sites, Harper’s Ferry and Gettysburg and most of the national parks try to recognize the role of blacks, free and slave, mostly on the side of the Union. If the Governor really wants to promote tourism there are a lot better ways to do so.
Gail Collins writes in her New York Times column
April is the cruelest month. Or, if you live in Virginia, Confederate History Month.
The state is buzzing over Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proclamation urging citizens to spend the month recalling Virginia’s days as a member of the Confederate States of America. Although since McDonnell had previously turned April over to child abuse prevention, organ donation and financial literacy, perhaps it was O.K. to just pick your favorite.
The original Confederate History proclamation was a miracle of obfuscation. It did not even mention slavery. On Wednesday, the governor apologized for that and said that slavery “has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation.”
People, what’s our bottom line here. The governor of Virginia has decided to bring slavery into his overview of the history of the Confederacy. Good news, or is this setting the bar a wee bit too low?
The love affair with all things Confederate is way more worrisome. Once again, it’s in to talk secession. The Republican attorneys general are lining up to try to nullify the health care bill.
“Many issues of the Civil War are still being debated today,” said Brag Bowling of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which led the push to get that proclamation in Virginia. That seems extremely depressing, as if we were Serbs stewing about what the Turks did at the Plain of Blackbirds in 1389.
Actually, a national discussion of Civil War history sounds fine — as long as we could start by agreeing that the whole leaving-the-union thing was a terrible idea. In the proclamations, it generally sounds as if everything went swimmingly until the part where the South lost and grudgingly rejoined the country.
I have been accused by at least one commentator on this blog of seeing everything in racial terms. I think just the opposite is true. People like Governor McDonnell and Representative Joe Wilson and, in fact, the entire “just say no” to anything proposed by President Obama is based on the President’s race. We need to have a serious discussion about race. I don’t know how that can happen as President Clinton tried to initiate one and failed and President Obama can’t initiate it. Maybe Clinton tries again. Maybe Clinton and President Carter together. But no matter how much the McDonnell and Republicans want to go backward, the fact remains: We have elected a black man as President and the population of the United States will soon have a majority population of people of color and there isn’t much they can do about those two things.
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